Friday, October 17, 2008

Defending Conan

Anyone who has ever lurked or posted at the forums knows that 1982’s Conan the Barbarian is not very popular among “true” Conan fans. Most of their arguments stem from the fact that Arnold’s portrayal of the character is almost nothing like the character from the original stories, written for pulp magazine Weird Tales in the 1930s. They go on to lay blame for this not only on The Oak and his stilted acting, but also on the director, John Milius, for his “lack of respect for the source material.”

Well, I’m here to put my thoughts out there on the subject. Let me first start by saying that I LOVE the movie. It remains in my top ten favorites of all time, even after 26 years. And I have read the original Robert E. Howard stories, and I do recognize that the character is vastly different in the two mediums. Heck, he’s vastly different in every medium he is portrayed in, including comics, TV shows and paintings. But to understand why the movie deviates so much from the source material, one must first understand the history of the project.

In 1976 Buzz Feitshans was a Hollywood producer. He saw a little documentary about bodybuilding called Pumping Iron, which featured an Austrian named Arnold Schwarzenegger. He immediately started thinking of ways to capitalize on this newcomer’s obvious charisma. His first thought went to the character of Conan, which he knew from the comics. First Mistake.

Jump to 1981. After years of fighting to get the rights to do the movie, and then get a script written, they finally get the green light from Dino De Laurentiis. And the project began to take form. Originally, they wanted an unknown director by the name of Oliver Stone to helm it, but Dino said no after he bought the script, and brought in John Milius to work from Stone’s draft. A draft that was ten times further from the source material than the final product ended up being.

So Milius began researching the character, getting a lot of input from his long time friend and surfing buddy Gerry Lopez, who was also a huge Robert E. Howard buff (and would later be cast as Subotai for the film). They sat down and reworked the Stone script into something that could a) fit within the budget, b) be handled by the inexperienced Arnold, and c) still retain a passing resemblance to the source material. The first two points were incontrovertible successes. The third is highly debatable, and still debated to this day. With outstanding visuals by production designer Ron Cobb (who also makes a cameo appearance in the film), and some great cinematography, action sequences, and supporting performances by great talents such as Sandahl Bergman, Mako and Max Von Sydow, the finished product was a resounding success at the time. It opened to rave reviews, did huge business, and set the standard for Sword & Sorcery movies from then on

In my opinion, Milius and his crew did a fantastic job, considering the tools they were given. He was not allowed the cast the main character, he was asked to learn everything he could about Conan in a short time (thank God he had Gerry there), and he had to listen to the technical advisor, L. Sprague DeCamp, who for years did both good and bad things for the property, and who was very biased in his view of the author, Howard. In the end, we got a movie that was very Conan, but not totally pure. It was a Hollywoodization. But a good one, all things considered.

So, why do Howard fans have such a hate-on for it?

Strictly speaking, it’s because it wasn’t a direct interpretation of a Robert E. Howard story. The character and his background were drastically changed, the events of the movie’s plot was cobbled together from bits and pieces of Howard stories (some not even Conan), and Arnold was obviously only cast because of his physique. In short, it was a purist’s nightmare. And this phenomenon is something that happens EVERY time a book or series is adapted to film. Especially, it seems, with science fiction and fantasy films. I mean, suspense thrillers are often completely changed for the film’s version. Look at 1982’s First Blood. Completely different from the novel, yet still applauded as a great movie, even by the author of the original book, David Morrell.

So why do Conan fans, and fantasy/sci fi fans in general (often referred to as “geeks”) lament the film adaptations of their favorite books? Truth is, nobody knows. I suspect it’s because they feel that this material is somehow “theirs” because it’s not so mainstream. And they are particularly defensive about it. And maybe it’s because a lot of them don’t have a passion for much else, so they latch onto this platform like a Right-Winger latches onto his Bible, and a Left-Winger latches onto her Peace symbol.

In the end, the only thing that matters is that some people will never be happy. With the rumors surrounding the new Conan film in pre-production, there is a lot of negativity in the air. And it’s not just the fans, but the media that is fueling the fires of doubt. Every time a piece of news comes out, following closely on it’s heels is a plethora of badly-informed and overly-biased opinions from so-called “experts” who try to portray it as a sequel (which it’s not) with a list of “talentless hack” directors attached at one time or another. I sincerely hope they are wrong. I sincerely hope that the movie takes it’s inspiration from the stories, rather than the comics, or, Crom forbid, the previous films (and I use the plural loosely, as I consistently disavow the second one). And if it sucks, guess what. We still have the original stories, which have seen a recent resurgence in popularity.

So, swing that sword, Hollywood! And let the heads fall where they may.


Andre said...

People as a whole don't generally understand the idea of an 'interpretation' when it comes to a certain genre. They expect accuracy to the image or ideal they have in their head, and when a representation becomes popular and doesn't synch up with that image or expectation, they protest.

Characters, like Conan, should be seen like Jazz Standards. The tune is the same, the familiar backdrop and themes are all present, but the interpretation is completely that of the artist. Nobody in music would argue that Sinatra's rendition of The Lady is a Tramp is the 'right' way. Its HIS way, and people paid to see him perform it. In this case, Conan was pulled from one medium, pulp fiction, and put onto the screen through an interpretive lens.

What critics need to realize is that Conan, in any form, might well have remained an obscure trash fiction figure if it had not been for that interpretation, and the movie probably brought a great many readers to the original books. In any event, if Conan's original character is as strong as supporters say, then it cannot be damaged by a movie. If it is not, then any changes wrought by the movie were can arguably be considered improvements.


Tom said...

Yeah, I've actually posted that arguement on the forums. Boneheads just don't seem to get it. Meh!